Within their long-running
French Song Edition Hyperion are devoting
four volumes to an intégrale
of the songs of Gabriel Fauré.
The first volume was warmly welcomed
by my colleagues, Ian Lace in
February and Kevin Sutton the
following month. It’s very good
news that collectors haven’t had to
wait long for the second instalment.
To recap briefly, the
songs are to be gathered together in
four thematically planned albums. Within
each programme the songs will be presented
chronologically, which makes sense.
Graham Johnson, the moving spirit behind
the project, maintains this thematic
arrangement is preferable to a simple
chronological survey. A chronological
presentation, inevitably, would mean
a concentration in at least one CD on
the early songs, not all of which are
of the greatest interest. I think he’s
right but the slight snag is that one
sometimes has the impression that the
basic premise behind these thematic
layouts is being stretched rather a
long way to justify the inclusion of
some songs in a particular album. However,
the main thing is that the songs are
here and in performances that are, in
the main, first class.
The title of this particular
collection, Un Paysage Choisi
(‘A Chosen Landscape’) is
taken from the first line of the famous
song, Claire de Lune. A good
number of songs are concerned with seasons
of the year. Others are concerned with
physical landscapes or, as Johnson puts
it, "other landscapes which are
less specific … but no less evocative."
All the singers assembled
here featured in Volume 1, with one
exception. This is the tenor, Jean-Paul
Fouchécourt, who is French, I
assume. (The one omission in the otherwise
excellent documentation is any biographies
of the artists.) I haven’t heard him
before but I like his singing very much.
He opens the programme with Mai
(track 1) and he makes an immediately
pleasing impression with his nice, easy
delivery, his clear diction and the
light, sappy tone of his tenor. He’s
equally good in Lydia (track
4), a wonderful song, though for my
taste it’s taken a fraction too slowly
To the other tenor,
John Mark Ainsley, falls one of the
plums in the collection, the celebrated
Après un rêve (track
8) Much though I admire Ainsley I’m
not quite sure about some of his French
pronunciation here and I rather wish
the song had been allocated to Fouchécourt.
I’m much happier with his performance
of Sérénade toscane
(track 10). He sounds more at ease
with the language and I also have the
impression that the line and the tessitura
suit his voice better.
That song is followed
by Automne (track 11), one of
the songs sung by Geraldine McGreevy.
This is a marvellous, eloquent song
and McGreevy does it full justice. Indeed,
some of the sounds she made reminded
me of Dame Janet Baker, and I can think
of no higher praise. She lightens her
tone beautifully for the very next song,
La féé aux chansons
(track 12). This song isn’t the
equal of Automne but it is "a
shy and neglected song of aerial enchantment"
as Graham Johnson describes it, with
a typically felicitous turn of phrase.
Sadly, on this particular
album there is only one contribution
from Dame Felicity Lott, which is a
pity since she is one of the leading
exponents of French song of her generation.
She gives us the exquisite Claire
de lune (track 14) and doesn’t disappoint.
This is an effortless performance, full
of irresistible charm and grace.
The major soprano item
on the programme is the late song cycle,
Le jardin clos (tracks 21 – 28.)
This cycle, which dates from 1914, sets
poems by the Belgian poet, Charles Van
Lerberghe, whose poetry Fauré
had already chosen for the cycle, La
chanson d’Ève (1906.) These
1914 settings are typical of later Fauré,
being harmonically elusive and melodically
sophisticated. All but two of the eight
songs are in slow tempo and the principal
underlying theme is "distanced
eroticism" as Johnson puts it.
For the most part the emotion is restrained
and private. Even in the third song,
La messagère (track 23),
which Johnson rightly describes as "a
big song" and which is more public
than the others, if I may put it that
way, the feelings are not displayed
The soloist in this
cycle is Jennifer Smith and she sings
with intelligence and evident sympathy
for the music. However, I feel there’s
a touch of hardness in some of the vowel
sounds and in the tone she produces.
To my ears the sound is often a bit
nasal. This is a highly subjective response
and other listeners may well not hear
the singing in the same way. However,
for all the merits of Smith’s performance
I can’t help feeling that an opportunity
has been missed and that the cycle would
have been even more convincing if sung
by Dame Felicity.
The baritone songs
are shared between Stephen Varcoe and
Christopher Maltman. Varcoe has long
been a singer I admire and I enjoyed
all his performances here. In particular
the "sad grandeur" (Johnson)
of Dans la forèt de septembre
(track 19) suits him admirably and
he delivers this lovely song most eloquently.
Maltman, too, is a fine singer. His
first song on the CD, Le voyageur
(track 9) represents something of
a mood switch since it is the first
forceful song we have heard. Maltman
projects it strongly. He also does extremely
well in Prison (track 18), a
succinct setting of powerful melancholy.
It’s rivetingly sung by Maltman.
I’ve focused on the
singers but this is rather unfair. As
always Graham Johnson is much, much
more than a "mere" accompanist.
Every song becomes a true artistic partnership.
His piano playing is packed with insight
and radiates sympathy for and understanding
of the music at every turn. You feel
that he is ‘with’ his singers at all
times – he must be a joy for a singer
to work with. Besides devising the programmes
Johnson contributes superb notes (as
usual). How does he find the
time to write these detailed booklet
notes? When one thinks of his notes
for all the other Hyperion projects
that he has undertaken he has become,
effectively, an author of major essays
(if not books) on the song repertoire.
As always, his notes here are full of
information and perception and he leads
the reader on just as persuasively as
he leads the listener on when he puts
down his pen and turns to the keyboard.
Time and again he has a marvellous turn
of phrase and he possesses the rare
gift of making his reader want to hear
right now the music about which he or
she is reading.
Needless to say, Hyperion
provides full French texts and English
translations. (Does any label consistently
provide such excellent documentation?)
The recordings, made over a period of
time and in an unspecified location(s)
are very even in quality and reproduce
both voice and piano very well.
Despite a couple of
reservations this is a very fine collection
indeed. Hyperion is doing Fauré
proud. I for one can’t wait for Volumes
3 and 4. In the meantime this CD (and
its predecessor) will do very nicely.
This disc has given me enormous pleasure
and will continue to do so, I know.
I recommend it urgently.